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Tariq is a theatre actor, who has trainned in Chicago and worked in Delhi before very recently moving to Bombay:
WORTH THE WAIT
The Motley Theatre Festival concluded at Prithvi with the much-awaited revival of “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett. This revived version was directed by Benjamin Gilani and included the stellar cast of Naseeruddin Shah, Akash Khurana, Benjamin Gilani , Randeep Hooda and a young boy, Yanik Shetty Menon.
First off, I did not have a ticket to the show until five minutes before the show was scheduled to start at 9 pm on Saturday night. I had been harassing all and sundry for weeks to spare me a ticket that I was willing to pay for at any price! Every vaguely familiar face turned a darker shade of purple when they saw me, knowing I would chase them around like a rabid dog till they handed me their ticket. All my efforts went in vain; every single ticket to the only four shows at Prithvi were gone, gone, gone. So after attending the Thespo Orientation Meeting at Prithvi on Saturday I began the long journey home to Breach Candy. A quick glance at the poster of "Waiting for Godot" brought out extreme feelings of dejection and I hung my head in defeat. I had been unsuccessful in gaining access to this much vaunted production. What's more, as I walked under a tree, a bird chose me as its target for its daily toilet routine. Nothing was going right. I had reached Bandra when suddenly I felt a tremor. I hoped and prayed an earthquake was not on its way because that would sum up a horrible day. I soon realized that the tremor was merely my cell phone vibrating in my pocket. I took out my phone and answered a call from someone who was clearly haunted by my pursuit for a ticket to the play. Exactly forty five minutes prior to showtime on Saturday night. He asked me calmly and casually – “Where are you? Can you make it to Prithvi before 9 pm? I might have a ticket for you.” I answered anxiously and breathlessly – “Yes, yes, yes.” I jumped out of a friend's car right as we were about to get on to the Bandra-Worli Sea-link and hopped into an auto rickshaw that would proceed to take me to Juhu via a supposed short cut. That short cut included a roller-coaster ride through a chaotic vegetable market that left me smelling like onions and tomatoes by the time I got to Prithvi. On arriving, a hungry patron offered to buy me because I smelled like a sandwich.
Exactly five minutes to show time. I found a seat in the corner of the last row of the theatre and tried to quickly dismiss thoughts of the chaotic journey to that seat. Time for another journey - a journey into the absurd world of Samuel Beckett. I would like to take a moment to thank my ancestors and forefathers for instilling in me the determination to pursue play tickets.
Now on to the review! Or lets call it a “critical analysis”. Being an actor myself, I tend to avoid reviews because more often than not, they end up as judgements rather than sound critical analysis. It is a fine line, especially when opinions on art are concerned. However, it is going to be my sincere effort to understand and analyse the creative choices that were made in this production without demeaning the value of those choices. Here goes.
“Waiting for Godot” is a classic Beckett play, and has been performed all over the world by various nationalities. It’s a pioneer in the theatre of the absurd. This was the first time I was seeing a production of any Beckett play, although I had read “Godot” many years ago. Beckett’s writing is exciting to me because of the metaphors it incites throughout the play. For example, Estragon (played by Benjamin Gilani) repeats the line, “I am going” throughout the play but not once does he actually move to go. And eventually he goes nowhere. The drama and contrast in Beckett’s writing is very invigorating. Beckett does not spell out anything for the audience, neither does he preach. To create a physical world out of those metaphors creates incredible drama and lets the audience come to his/her own conclusions and still be entertained.
In Motley’s production of “Godot”, Vladimir (played by Akash Khurana) and Estragon had some great camaraderie throughout the show. They played two hopeless and seemingly homeless individuals waiting endlessly for someone called Godot who never arrives on stage. They sat around a dead-looking tree with no leaves in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do. A through-line for the play is “nothing to be done”. There is nothing to accomplish for these two characters and the only thing keeping them alive is the potential arrival of Godot. Both Khurana and Gilani captured the essence of being homeless very well. The sullen nature of Estragon combined with the forced enthusiasm of Vladimir made for delightful viewing. For instance, there is a scene in the play when Estragon asks Vladimir for a carrot. Vladimir proceeds to fish out a ragged looking turnip and radish before finding the elusive carrot in one of his pockets. Although a tragic moment, the audience giggled at the sight of the shrivelled carrot. Here were two old men literally living on the brink of death but the audience giggled. Throughout the play, Khurana peeps in his hat expecting to find something but it is always empty. It remains empty, yet he repeatedly takes the hat off his head, looks into it, sees nothing, and puts it back on his head. He has nothing, he owns nothing. Tragic yet funny.
The poignancy of this production was in its ability to balance the tragic and the comic so well. There is not much at all to be happy about in this play but the audience laughs through it. The drama is in the irony. The play livens up significantly when Pozzo (played by Naseeruddin Shah) enters being pulled by Lucky (played by Randeep Hooda), his slave, via a long rope. In this production, Lucky seems to be an old man with a young body, based on the heavy white beard and white wig that Hooda was sporting in the show. Shah’s performance as Pozzo is riveting. Pozzo is a pompous, devilish man claiming to own the land. The dichotomy of Pozzo’s behaviour is astounding – he whips Lucky and barks orders at him while he interacts in relatively civil manner with Vladimir and Estragon. The image of Shah whipping Hooda had immense visual impact and at one point in the play, a majority of the audience winced because the sound of the whipping was so sharp. To me, Pozzo represents the egotistical leaders and businessmen of the world while Lucky represents the masses.
The commitment to character in this production was a treat to watch and definitely a very special experience. The subtle nuances in Shah’s performance - the way he lit his pipe, used the whip, his posture while sitting and standing – everything lent itself to the pompous nature of Pozzo and his cruelty towards Lucky. I was deeply engrossed in Shah’s performance because he returned in the second act having gone blind and now being led by Lucky using a shorter rope. Pozzo now seems to have a lot more wisdom and Shah’s rendering of a blind, agonized Pozzo was brilliant. Too much brashness leads to blindness is the metaphor that stuck out for me. Hooda’s performance as Lucky was not too shabby either – his clumsy dance was hilarious. Also, when Pozzo commands Lucky to think, Hooda embarks on a messily worded monologue that sounded like it included real words and phrases with some gibberish. Very funny. This production had a lot of clarity in its depiction of characters and each character felt distinct from the other in personality and behaviour.
The young shepherd boy (Yanik Shetty Menon) shows up intermittently in the play and claims to bring a message from Godot that he will arrive the next day (but of course Godot never does). The boy seems to be the only ray of hope through the entire play because Vladimir and Estragon cling to the notion that at least Godot exists if he is sending a messenger to them. The play ends with them agreeing to hang themselves the next day if Godot does not arrive. But neither of them move to go anywhere and stay stationary.
The main set was the lone tree that was lit discreetly throughout the play. No part of the Prithvi stage was covered and actors frequently went off stage during scenes which gave the impression that the play was set in a wide open area (maybe a large desert or an area with a wide landscape). That also added to the loneliness of the characters who seemed stuck in the middle of nowhere, around one tree, in a wide expanse of space.
The lighting in this production was also very good. At one point in the play, the subtle shift to moonlight made for great viewing and overall the lighting supported the mood of the play very well. A strong visual moment came when one singular green leaf appeared at the top of the dry, leafless tree in the second act. The bright green colour of that one leaf stood in stark contrast to the bleak grayish tone of the rest of the tree. The green leaf seemed to represent the impending arrival of Godot.
My only bone of contention with this production is whether it was wholly accessible to the audience. Motley’s production was entirely universal in its presentation - it could be performed anywhere in the world without changing anything. No choices were made to fit the play into a specific era or period. Even the costumes in the play did not imply a specific location or time period. A play like “Godot” that is seeped in absurd dialogue and has no linear plot movement became difficult to navigate during certain moments. It also ran nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes, which did not make it entirely easy to stay invested in the play. I also tend to think of the young high school or college student that watches any play written by a foreign writer. Beckett was from Dublin in Ireland and he probably was not thinking of the average Indian theatre audience when he wrote “Waiting for Godot”. I felt yearning for a link to my current surroundings, or a connection to something tangible that I could relate to right away. A realistic Indian connection was missing for me. I could be wrong. Maybe that missing link is perhaps the premise of the “Waiting for Godot” mantra – there is nothing to be done and nowhere to be. And whether you are in India or Ireland, it does not matter because nobody is going anywhere. It would be interesting to see other versions of this play performed around the world and if other theater practitioners have strayed from Beckett’s original setting and given it a localized interpretation.
So the Motley festival heads to town in September with shows at NCPA. I recommend that you get your tickets now! Do not wait till Godot gets to town because by then it might be too late. This is a top notch production with great performances from some veteran actors. Do not miss it!